Population control measures in traditional Marshallese Culture: a review of 19th century European observations

by Dirk Spennemann


With respect to the Population Policy to be drafted by the Population Co-ordinating Committee, the Archaeology Unit of the Alele Museum was asked informally to provide data on population control measures in traditional Marshallese culture. The following is a systematic review of all accessible literature and a compilation of data and opinions culled from a variety of ethnographic literature, mainly dating from the second half of the 19th century. This paper specifically excludes oral traditions gathered from interviews of the 1970s and 1980s (see below, What is traditional Marshallese custom?).

In the following I will discuss the economic constraints of having a large number of children and will then investigate the traditional methods to limit the number of offspring. This includes a discussion of contraception, child spacing, abortion, infanticide, adoption, infertility and outward migration. I will clearly focus on intentional methods of population control. Accidental influences, such as typhoons[1] and dispersal during voyaging[2], as well as other causes of death such as suicide [3], murder [4], capital punishment [5] and burial with chiefs [6] shall be excluded.

What is traditional Marshallese custom?

This report was requested with the intention of obtaining information on the traditional Marshallese ways of population control. This obviously raises the question "What actually is traditional Marshallese custom?"

This is not the place to discuss this issue in any great detail, especially as it is a very complex one. I would like to point out, however, that traditional custom or culture is not a fixed and rigid system. Culture is a continuum, a system wherein ideas, behaviour and technology are constantly adapted to the present needs. Superfluous aspects are given up, while new ones (often from the outside) are taken on board. At present the new influences are those of the modern western high-technology world. About a century ago these were the influences presented by the Christian churches, and 150 years ago these were the influences of the whalers and earliest traders. Before the arrival of the European visitors the outside influences were of Carolinean and Kiribati origin.

Traditional culture is the culture of one's grandparents or great-grandparents, the culture they talked about when admonishing children "that in the old days things were different". The culture of our times, that of the 1990s, will form the traditional culture of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Following from this it needs to be realised that what is now regarded by most Marshallese as traditional Marshallese culture is in fact the Marshallese culture present at the turn of the century, or at best the culture of the second half of last century. Oral traditions do not transfer information without any change, be it omission, addition or conjecture. However, oral traditions are not valueless, especially if one is aware of the time depth discussed.

It should be noted that all sources used for the following data presentation refer to existing customs at the time the papers or books were written, or to customs reported by older people which found their way into the publications mentioned.[7] Thus the traditions will hardly penetrate past the middle of the 19th century. An exception are Chamisso and the two survivors of the Globe mutiny who report on the situation during the 1810s and 1820s.

The sources

The information on the Marshall Islands presented below has been culled from various categories of sources, each of which has its own bias in data collection and/or reporting: Catholic and Protestant priests, colonial administrators, resident and itinerant traders and ethnographers. Before presenting the extracted data I will review the sources used and outline some of their background and their motives. Given the time-frame chosen, most of the sources stem from the times of the German Colonial Administration. Some American sources could also be drawn.

It needs to be stressed, however, that save for one source, which was unfortunately unavailable to me[8], all sources were written by men. One might therefore expect a strong male bias both in the reporting and especially in the data gathering. [9]This bias becomes very obvious if one compares the treatment of the topics of house- and canoe construction with the treatment of social relations and women's matters: While the ethnographers attempt to cover the entire range of topics in an even and systematic manner, the traders and administrators have quite a different perspective and tend to focus on the tangible aspects as well as the production side (copra) of Marshallese culture, often gallantly bypassing or even completely ignoring social and personal topics. In addition to the intentional or subconscious male bias, we can expect a further bias caused by the fact that a male was asking questions of a very private nature, moreover, asking these questions to women not closely related to him.

The Catholic priests

Father A.Erdland, a Catholic missionary of the Sacred Heart Jesu Society based in Hiltrup, Germany, lived on Jaluit from 1904(?) to 1914. [10] Widely interested in Marshallese culture and language, he published extensively. His major piece of research is a 376 page monograph on the Marshall islanders published in 1914. Erdland, coming from an active Catholic background can be expected to represent Catholic ideals wherever possible. In a couple of instances Erdland explicitly mourns that Marshallese families have not more children and argues against customary population control measures.

Father H.Linckens was non-resident missionary, also from the Sacred Heart of Jesu Society at Hiltrup. He came to visit the Marshall Islands in 1904 and 1911, each a visit of several weeks duration. In 1912 he published a small volume on the Marshall Islands and the Catholic mission activities. His account, on the whole, is very anectdotal and coarse, extolling the merits of the Catholic mission.

The German colonial administrators

The administrators send by the Imperial German Government were commonly, but not exclusively, Protestant Prussians. They, as well as their medical officers[11], supplied regular annual reports, which were published in official German Colonial Archives (Anonymous, 1886; 1892; 1893; 1895a; 1895b; 1896; 1897; 1898; 1899; 1900).

The resident traders

Carl Hager apparently was a German trader on employ by the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen Gesellschaft (?) He published a 157 page book on the Marshall Islands, mainly from a geographic and material cultural point of view, with a strong emphasis on produce and trade. Social aspects are only touched upon, and if so, only in a cursorily manner.

Friedrich Hernsheim , operating originally from Hamburg, was at least temporarily a resident trader who over the years acquired a large fortune, operating trading stations on several atolls from 1871 onwards. Hernsheim published a series of papers on the Marshall Islands.

The ethnographers

Augustin Kraemer and Hans Nevermann co-produced the so far most detailed and comprehensive volume on the ethnography of the Marshall islands. Augustin Kraemer, a diligent specialist in oceanic ethnology, had visited in the Marshall islands a number of times (1897/98; 1910) and has published widely on the topic.While Kraemer had been a member of the famous German South Sea Expedition of Hamburg, spending the years 1908 to 1910 in the South Pacific, especially in parts of the German colonies, H.Nevermann had been the curator for Oceania at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. The data presented in that volume, although published as late as 1938, refer to the data collected in 1910 as well as to published sources.

Otto Finsch, a German ethnographer and naturalist, visited the Marshall Islands 1879/1880 for almost a year. He mainly stayed on Jalwoj, Arno and Mile, predominantly working on the natural history of the Marshall Islands.

Other sources

Adalbert von Chamisso, a German poet and amateur naturalist accompanied Otto von Kotzebue on an voyage of discovery, financed by the Russian zar. The Russians visited the Marshall islands in 1816 and 1817. Chamisso's, and to a lesser extent Kotzebue's accounts are tainted by the spirit of romanticism, en vogue in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Many aspects are seen through rose-tinted glasses, on the search for the perfect "savages" living in harmony with nature.

William Lay & Cyrus M.Hussey were two survivors of the mutiny on the whaler Globe in 1824, Both lived for over one and a half years on Mile Atoll, kept by the Marshallese as "slaves" and to a certain extent, as "pets" for their curiosity value. The accounts of these two sailors, however, are very limited regarding information on customs, especially those related to women. On the whole there is so little mention made of women and the general laissez faire of sexual relations that it is almost certain that this information has been oppressed.

The need for population control

Pre-European times

The land area of the Marshall Islands is confined. Given the geological make-up of the atolls, the available habitable land area almost invariably consists of small and low sand-cays, prone to environmental influences such as aggrading and degrading shorelines, exposure to cyclonic surges and tidal waves. Other environmental constraints regulating the size of a population on a given island (the carrying capacity of the island) are the existence and extent of groundwater lenses and the pedological make-up, governing whether cultivated plants other than pandanus and coconut palms could be grown successfully. Only very few islets within each atoll fulfilled these requirements and could be used on a permanent basis; other islets were often used as extended outlying gardens or seasonal/temporary fishing camps.

The wellbeing and ultimately the successful survival of an atoll population depended on the availability of food not only during times of normal seasons, with recurrent food shortages because some food was "out of season", but also - and more importantly - during climatic extremes, like tidal waves and typhoons and their after-effects such as devastated landscapes. Whereas protein resources, in kind of fish and shellfish, were relatively abundant at almost all times, carbohydrates were restricted. Food stuffs remain edible only for a short time, especially in a tropic environment such as that of the Marshall Islands. Even though staple foods, as the name implies, could be stapled and hoarded, this could be done only for a limited time. Therefore the amount of food available at any given time was limited by the following factors:

i) productivity of the island or atoll

ii) amount of food stored for times of food shortages [12]

iii) size of the population

Of these parameters, the productivity of the island/atoll could not, or only very little, be influenced by the people. The amount of food stored for times of food shortages was limited by the productivity of the island and by the effort put into preparing and storing it. But even if as much food as possibly could be stored was actually stored, the population could and would reach a ceiling limit beyond which people could no longer be satisfactorily fed. Given these constraints, it is obvious that a human population could not be allowed to grow in excess of the carrying capacity of the island/atoll, if the survival of the group as a whole should not be imperiled. The traditional Marshallese custom provided for several methods which will be described below.

European contact times

The parameters governing the number of children changed very significantly during the last quarter of last century: European traders introduced the concept of money. The power of money as a storageable, though inedible staple was readily recognised by the Marshallese. Not only could one obtain goods desired, but one could also could buy food - if one was one of the privileged who could obtain/earn money in the first place. [13]

Population control measures

Marriage/sexual interaction

Marriage and sexual interaction started relatively early, often before the onset of puberty (Finsch 1893:386; Erdland 1914:118). According Erdland (1914:118), girls married at an age of 12 to 14 and boys at an age of 14 to 16.[14] The young people, wrote Erdland (1914:124), attempted to avoid having children during the first years of their marriage, since they had "sexual intercourse predominantly to satisfy their passions". Hager (1886:76) confirms that young couples were commonly childless and that offspring were only present among older women. [15] Hermsheim (1887:300) mentions that sexual intercourse before the onset of puberty, previously frowned upon, had become common in his times.

According to all sources consulted, the Marshallese society was very promiscuous by any standards and almost everybody had or could have had intercourse with anybody else of the opposite sex, regardless of whether the person was in a relationship of sorts or not. [16]. Prohibited - though occurring - were incest between siblings, between parallel cousins [17], between parents and their children [18], marriages (though not necessarily intercourse) between members of the same clan and intercourse between a commoner and the main wife of an iroj.[19]


Abstinence was to be obeyed on various occasions, although these, on the whole cannot have contributed substantially to the control of population:

* If a marriage partner became sick and needed to be treated, then both the other partner[20] and the treating medical person have to abstain from intercourse for the duration of the treatment (Erdland 1914:135; 337). The woman was rubbed with the sap of the kedak plant[21] making her untouchable for sexual intercourse (kmur).[22] (Erdland 1906:183).

* If an iroj had died, the undertaker was not allowed to have intercourse for considerable period of time (Erdland 1914:326).

* Also, no intercourse occurred during menstruation (Erdland 1914:337-338; Kraemer & Nevermann 1938:188).[23] (see also section on child spacing).


It appears that effective contraception was not widely practiced. Although a contradiction in terms, I would like to distinguish between pre- and post-intercourse contraception. The sources available are not very detailed on the topic, but some information could be collated.

Pre-intercourse contraception

No information on pre-intercourse contraception could be obtained from the available sources and appears that no methods of contraception were known. [24]

Post-intercourse contraception

There is an obscure reference in Erdland (1914:124) that the male removed his sperm in an "artificial manner", after intercourse (same reference in Kraemer & Nevermann 1938:188).

Child spacing

The information on potential child spacing as a method of population control is very disparate.

Sexual intercourse after birth

Finsch (1893:386) mentions that a woman was not permitted to have sexual intercourse with her husband (or any other male) for four weeks after having given birth. According to Erdland (1914:125), however, the husband was requested by custom to have sexual intercourse with his wife a few days after she gave birth. If he did not comply, then any other male had the liberty to have intercourse with the lady in question, and that for a considerable period of time.


Extended periods of lactancy are reported. [25]The mother commonly breastfed a child until it was two or three, sometimes even four years old (Erdland 1914:126; Kraemer & Nevermann 1938:192; Finsch 1893:131; 387). Children of iroj were often breastfed by their mothers and by other women until they were seven, eight or even ten years old (Erdland 1906:185; 1914:126) . Children are often handed around and breastfed by women other than their own mother. Erdland even reports that some women with an excess of milk filled it into bottles and sent it to other women.

Number of children

The number of children seemed to have been a question of the societal standing of the parents and therefore of their affluence in food. According to Erdland (1914:126) the number of children among iroj was often excessive as the iroj could have six to ten women. At the turn of the century the number of children was few and only "rarely one encountered families with six or eight children" (Erdland 1914:127).


Depending on the disposition of the marriage partners a child was either kept or removed. Abortion, so Erdland (1914:125), was not seen as murder, as the foetus did not count as a human being.


According to Erdland (1914:124) abortion is very common among young unmarried girls, since a child born out of wedlock was child "child born at the wayside" (ajeri iturin ial). Married couples, however, attempted to have at least one child; abortion is said to have been rather uncommon among them. Kraemer & Nevermann (1938:188) mention that abortion was common among unmarried girls and among young couples.


Abortion was effected by the means of massages [26], conducted with the hands and/or bottles[27] and aided by hot baths (Erdland 1914:125).


The opinions on the occurrence and frequency of infanticide vary widely among the sources consulted. It appears, however, that only newly born babies were killed.[28]


The first reference to infanticide comes from A.v.Chamisso and O.v.Kotzebue, who visited the Marshalls in 1816. Both report that on islands of the Ratak chain but not on islands of the Ralik chain, the number of children was limited. Only the first three children were tolerated, while the fourth and further children were buried alive. Exception was made only for children of the iroj (Kotzebue 1821: II 94; III 119-120; Chamisso 1986:281). Chamisso (1986:269) quoting a Marshallese, Kadu of Wotje, mentions that the infanticide took place because of the want of food.

The situation may have had already changed in the 1880s, as the references are no longer unequivocal. Hermsheim (1883: 88) mentions that in the earlier days (pre-1880s) not more than two children were tolerated, possibly, as he puts it, because for the want of food. But even in the 1880s, he mentions, more than two children are uncommon. Hager (1886:76) mentions that infanticide of every fourth and subsequent child had not been practised "for years" and that it had been, anyway, only common in the Ratak chain. A German government report on the conditions in the Marshall Islands one year after the Marshalls had become a German colony (Anonymous 1886), however, mentions that "the family members attend to abortion".

Erdland (1914:127) reports the occurrence infanticide only in periods of extreme food shortages or outright starvation, as well as when the people were on a flight during times of war. Therefore, Erdland presents (or interprets) infanticide as an expedient method to remove a burden on an adult population in times of dire need, such as starvation or war. Erdland mentions that even the oldest islanders interviewed by him did not know of a law or rule to kill every third child (ibid.).[29]

Kraemer (in Kraemer & Nevermann 1938:190) learned in 1910 that newly born children were buried alive only in case of starvation. According to A.Brandeis[30], newborns were placed on a raft and pushed out to sea in case of starvation. If someone rescued a child buried alive, it belonged to the rescuer (Kraemer & Nevermann 1938:190).

Handicapped children, were systematically eliminated [31], again, as Erdland (1914:127) puts it, because they were regarded as a burden to society (see also confirmation in Kraemer & Nevermann 1938:190).


Infants and newly borns were commonly buried alive on the beach (Chamisso 1986:281; Erdland 1914:127). According to Brandeis [32], it was also know to place babies on a raft and push them out to sea.

Population decimation

The systematic killing of a certain number or class of people in times of need is not reported in the sources. Mentioned, however, is that when expedient, such measures could be adopted ad hoc, usually killing strangers: the atoll Likiep had been severely hit by a cyclone in the 1840s [33], as a result of which the people of Likiep were starving and living of grasses, weeds and fish. People from Mejit, who had been washed ashore at Likiep, were killed in order not to unnecessarily increase the number of people to be fed (Erdland 1906:184)

At times of war, all high-ranking[34] prisoners or war[35], commonly with the exception of young girls, were killed[36] (Erdland 1906:187; Kraemer & Nevermann 1938:203); the common method was to drown them in the lagoon[37] (Erdland 1906:188). In later times - of greater affluence - such people were commonly enslaved (Kraemer & Nevermann 1938:203). [38]


No information could be collected on practices of geronticide (killing of the old people).


A method of population control strictu sensu I have included adoption in this paper, as it permits the restriction of the size of an individual family. According to Erdland (1914:115-116) children were often promised to childless relatives (as well as relatives who had children of their own), often well before the children were born. Erdland reports of parents who did not keep any of their children. Adoption was considered an honour, especially if the babies were beautiful.


Although also a topic apparently only of marginal relevance to the matters at hand, I have included a short section on infertility. According to Erdland (1914:124) the Marshallese were well aware of the fact that repeated abortion could well lead to infertility. Birth-related illnesses such as child-bed fever appear to have been rare (Steinbach 1893). Pelvic infection, however, appeared to have been very common (ibid.) and was found in both acute and chronic stages. Steinbach (1893) mentions that the exorbitant common occurrence of syphilis lead to a large number of natural abortions and still births. [39] Therefore, low child numbers at the turn of the century may have at least been partially due to the rampant occurrence of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. [40]

Outward migration

Another method of population control is controlled intentional outward migration, or colonistation of other islands and atolls, either peacefully or by the means of force. Today's equivalent of this population regulatory would be the outward migration of Marshallese to Guam, Hawaii and the mainland U.S.A. Although the modern driving forces are economic advantages, these are not that different from early historic times when the driving force was want of food.


As has been argued earlier on, the carrying capacity of coral atolls is limited. In order not to live above their means the Marshall Islanders had to restrict the number of people.

A number of ethnographical sources, mainly from the late 19th century, has been reviewed with regard to traditional methods of population control. As could be expected, the available sources and therefore the information contained are very diverse.

A variety of potential population control measures were practised in the Marshall Islands, such as abstinence/constraint, contraception, abortion, infanticide and extended lactancy. Most of the methods have only been cursorily mentioned in the literature without attracting any greater attention as population control measures. The only two methods where some sort of uneqivocal consensus exists in the sources are the extended lactancy, commonly 2 to 3 and up to 4 years, and the infanticide of newly borns from the third or fourth child onwards. Abortion of foetuses apparently happened but not on a systematic basis. It appears that young couples did not want to burden themselves early on with offspring. But even if an unwanted child was born it could be given away for adoption.

The only - more or less - efficient methods from the point of controlling population growth were the extended lactancy and the infanticide. While the former may have had its roots in the expediency of mother's milk and relative unavailability of other child food, the latter seems to have been borne out of the need to reduce population numbers and thus pressure on food resources. In case of abrupt occurring food shortages, such as in times of typhoon destruction, strangers and other "unwanted elements" such as prisoners of war were killed. For long-term control of population numbers the killing of newly borns, in to whom so far only little food had been invested, appears more sensible than to kill older children or even the old people, who were sources of knowledge.

It needs to be repeated, however, that all sources available were those written by men and that a certain amount of - intentional of subconscious - male bias in both data collection and data presentation can be expected.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1989) Population control measures in traditional Marshallese Culture: a review of 19th century European observations. URL: http://marshall.csu.edu.au/Marshalls/html/demography/Popcontrol.html

CONTACT: Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
e-mail: dspennemann@csu.edu.au
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